Selfish people have less self-control because they do not even consider the feelings of their future selves, a new study suggests.

The research published in the journal Science Advances says that while many think of self-control as being a function of the foremost part of the brain where emotions are processed, it could actually be the work of the area where the parietal and temporal lobes meet farther back. That junction is thought to be important for social decision-making — like acts of community and selflessness — because it allows a person to overcome their desire to satisfy their present needs. The scientists used magnetic fields to stimulate that region, and found that the mechanism also promotes self-control, with delaying gratification from an immediate temptation in favor of an ultimate reward from achieving long-term goals.

Although experts usually believe self-control comes from the ability to resist an immediate temptation through “impulse control processes that dampen the desire,” according to the study, the University of Zurich researchers found evidence that the mechanism in the temporo-parietal junction promotes self-control by putting a decision in terms of how your future self will feel — “by allowing a focus on the perspective of one’s future needs.” That could happen in the same brain location involved in considering other people’s feelings before taking action because philosophy tells us that people may view their future selves “like a complete stranger,” the study says.

cake-1746435_1920 Selfish people also have trouble resisting immediate temptation. Image courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

Sure enough, researchers found that disrupting the function of the brain mechanism in question with magnetic fields made study subjects more selfish and impulsive — they could not dissociate from their current state, and the desires that come with it, in order to plan for the future or make pro-social decisions. Specifically the subjects were offered money to keep for themselves or split with another, and a choice between a small immediate sum against a larger sum down the road. The subjects who were hit with the magnetic fields, which prevented their neurons from firing properly, were stingier with others and less patient to receive their own reward.

Christian Ruff, a study co-author and behavioral neuroscientist at the Swiss university, told Live Science that the findings suggest being more generous with other people could improve a person’s self-control, and that’s an idea that could help treat addiction. Rather than focusing only on impulse control, socializing addicts could also be beneficial, as they have entered a “vicious circle.”

“Once you actually start becoming addicted, you do focus a lot more on your own impulses and feelings and disengage from the social world,” Ruff said. “This disengagement from having the focus and perspective of others makes it harder to control yourself.”

Source: Soutschek A, Ruff CC, Strombach T, Kalenscher T and Tobler PN. Brain stimulation reveals crucial role of overcoming self-centeredness in self-control. Science Advances. 2016.